Volunteer firefighter responding to a fire is entitled to immunity
A volunteer firefighter (Baum) for the Vanlue (OH) Fire Department was responding to a fire when he hit a car (Schilling`s). The road was icy and slippery.
According to the firefighter: He saw the other car backing up in his lane as he approached an intersection. He hit his brakes but slid into the car.
The driver of the other car said the following: He had stopped to help another driver, whose car had slid into a ditch. He was trying to back up his car to light the area. He didn`t see any cars coming as he began to back up, and the ice prevented his getting out of the way when he saw the firefighter`s car coming from the rear.
Both cars were significantly damaged, but neither driver was seriously injured.
The driver sued the firefighter, who claimed he had immunity. Under state law, governmental employees had immunity when performing “governmental functions.”
A state law defined an “emergency vehicle” as an emergency vehicle of a municipal, township, or county department. Emergency vehicles had to have a siren, whistle, or bell. The law defined vehicles used by fire departments, including those used by volunteer firefighters responding to fires, as “public safety vehicles.”
Schilling argued that Baum wasn`t entitled to immunity, apparently arguing volunteer firefighters weren`t governmental employees and that responding to a fire wasn`t a governmental function. He also argued that the firefighter didn`t have immunity because his car wasn`t equipped with a siren. He claimed the firefighter`s car was an “emergency vehicle,” so it needed a siren, whistle, or bell. The firefighter`s car had an emergency light but not a siren. Finally, the driver claimed the firefighter lost his immunity, arguing the car`s lack of a siren and the firefighter`s manner of driving constituted “willful, wanton, and reckless” conduct.
The firefighter asked the court for judgment without a trial, based on immunity.
His motion for judgment was granted. He had immunity. He was performing a governmental function when he hit the driver`s car, and his actions were not willful, wanton, or reckless.
He was a governmental employee for immunity purposes, and responding to a fire was a governmental function. Responding to fires was part of his duties as a volunteer firefighter–he couldn`t help control fires unless he traveled to the site. Moreover, state law provided immunity for paid firefighters when they traveled to a fire.
Although state law required emergency vehicles to have sirens, the firefighter`s car was a public safety vehicle, not an emergency vehicle. The statute clearly distinguished between “emergency” and “public safety” vehicles, and only emergency vehicles needed sirens.
The firefighter`s actions were not willful, wanton, or reckless …. At most, Baum was negligent …. Nothing showed that he ex-ceeded any posted speed limit, although he may have been driving unreasonably fast for road conditions. His emergency light was on, and he was driving in his own travel lane.
Erie Insurance Group v. Baum, 677 N.E.2d 1266 (Ohio) 1997
Source: Firestation Lawyer, Vol. 10, No. 7, July 1997, Quinlan Publishing Co., Boston, MA 02210, (800) 229-2084. Reprinted with permission.